There are a lot of common misconceptions and questions about CNC manufacturing among small shop woodworkers. Some worry that adding a computer-controlled machine somehow denigrates their craftsmanship and might hurt marketing to discriminating customers. Others who have a more positive attitude toward CNC in general are still concerned about the complexities and figuring out what it takes to get started.

We spoke to three veteran small shop woodworkers who took the CNC plunge with what might be described as entry-level machines. They all have varying technology backgrounds and do a wide range of work, from cabinetry to fine furniture and even retail products. But they all agree enthusiastically that CNC is a perfect fit in a quality custom woodworking shop as long as you consider a few tips.
Furniture parts and more
Andrew Coholic runs a 3-person custom furniture shop in Ontario, Canada. He took the CNC plunge in January 2012 when he bought a ShopBot Buddy CNC machine. It was a 48-inch model to which he added a 6-foot extension table. He does a 50-50 mix of custom cabinets and custom furniture, but he bought the CNC primarily for the furniture side of the operation.
“I bought it for furniture parts that were taking me too long to do by hand,” he said. That includes parts for sculpted chairs and carved table legs. “It allowed me to do stuff for a sellable price.” Before the CNC, he avoided doing custom chairs. Now they are good part of the operation.
“It’s something for me that I wouldn’t want to be without it now,” Coholic said. “A lot of things are too time consuming to be able to offer customers a competitive price. You have to charge what the market will bear.”
Coholic did have previous CNC experience going back to his college years in the 1990s, but it took him a while to add the technology once he got his own shop. Now he says his biggest mistake was investing too much in conventional machinery and not the CNC. He warns and advises those considering getting started with CNC, “Until you have a machine in the shop it’s hard to imagine what you can use it for. As you grow more comfortable, the more things you can do.” 
One of the uses he has for CNC is to make templates for his pneumatic copy lathe. Drawing a pattern on the computer and cutting the template on the CNC is a big time-saver, he said.
Of course, Coholic also acknowledges the challenge presented by learning CNC software. He got software months before he got the machine and forced himself to spend an hour or two each night doing tutorials and such. That helped him get the new machine up and running the day after he got it. Still, he acknowledges there is a steep learning curve. He says it took him six months before he was using the CNC machine for jobs the way he had envisioned.
One thing that has made his smaller machine more productive is the addition of vacuum hold-down. That has allowed him to cut more cabinet parts in the past year.
Carvings to compete
Another Canadian woodworker, Kevin Dunphy has been running a ShopBot PRS Alpha for about six years in his small shop in Newfoundland. He got the machine because he wanted to do carvings to help set his work apart from the big box stores. “Nothing separates your work like carvings,” he said.
Dunphy says it took about three years to really get comfortable using the machine, and he admonishes newcomers to CNC to not scrimp on training. “Spend the money to get the training,” he said. “I had to learn on my own, but trial and error is not as good as a classroom. You have to do that to get it up and running faster.”
He also recommends first-time CNC buyers plan ahead and “get as much machine as you can afford.” He wishes he got a machine with a taller Z axis, which would be helpful in the carving work he does. However, at the same time that he recommends investing in more machine, he also says he would get a second ShopBot rather than spend all the money in a much bigger CNC machine. That way, he said, he could have backup and could have multiple jobs working at the same time.
Carving furniture parts with a CNC instead of by hand doesn’t detract from the perceived craftsmanship as marketed to his customers. “I promote the carvings, not how they are done,” he says, adding that the precision of
CNC is also a great selling point to customers.
Sold on CNC technology, Dunphy says he is also looking into to 3D printing as a new possible venture for his shop.
CNC touches everything
Don Thomson has a one-man shop in Newport, Washington, and has been running a ShopBot PRS Alpha since 2009. Getting started in CNC was a “strictly business” decision, he said. He uses the machine a lot for cabinetry, but he also makes custom cedar signs, sign foam signs, cribbage boards, specialty products for retailers, and even does custom CNC cutting for other businesses.
“It was a business decision, not a technical or woodworking decision,” he explained. “I had to find ways to get more efficient. Doing it the old-fashioned way on the table saw was just too inefficient.” He cites the example of a recent job in which he did a large house with 80 cabinets that required cutting more than 100 sheets of plywood. He says the CNC machine pays for itself on jobs like that.
“It’s like having another employee,” he said. “And it doesn’t complain or show up late for work.”
Thomson went through some growing pains when he got his machine because the manufacture was changing hardware and electronics at the time. It took four weeks to get it up and running, and Thomson relied a lot on the help of other ShopBot users. He stresses the importance of training, and suggests that new CNC adopters would be best served by getting a manufacturer to put everything together and get the machine running quickly in your shop. “Have the professionals come in and get it fully operational,” he urges. “Get the training.”
He said that is particularly important with software. He had a lot of previous CAD experience, but he recommends new users get fully up to speed on the programs they will use before they get the machine.
“There is software that is very powerful with steep learning curves,” he advises. 
He also says it is crucial to decide what you are going to do with a CNC machine. That will affect the machine you get and the tooling you will need to buy. He says CNC is touching more and more in his shop. He is using it for dining room chairs, cutting out parts, templates for bent form laminations, and sign carving.
“I don’t cut plywood on the table saw anymore,” he said. “In 90 to 100 percent of the projects we do, CNC is used. While it’s doing one thing, I can be doing another. CNC is just another tool in the shop. You can get very creative using it. Then you put a sheet on the machine and 10 minutes later it is all machined. It’s a big time saver.”

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